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India Trip Notes

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Walking the Inner Circle

Photos of our walk by Peter Moras
click on thumbnails to enlarge

3-13-11 - Today posted Interview with Caroline Morton and commented: Only 69 files to go in the folder of interviews, notes, and transcripts this interview came from. Then there are 26 audio files of notes I'd read aloud and recorded before leaving. After that I can cull through the folders and files in my digital labyrinth seeking other undigested matter to share in cyberspace until the last bit degrades.

That's what I'm doing on this trip. It's a working trip. The last time I was in India and other nearby places, I did not have a laptop or take notes. I just walked around and studied Hindi everyday so I could say things like, "One tea please without sugar," and "I do not give to children." This time I'm not studying language which in this case would be Tamil.

I don't think I've ever been in a country for over a day when I didn't spend a lot of time trying to learn how to understand and communicate some basic concepts like where's the toilet and I like this country. It's a lot more work than people who don't do this realize, at least for me. On the scale of aptitude I'd say I was average whereas on the scale of effort I've been above average. The best learners of language, aside from children who learn magically, are often women, and learn quickly by listening and without a lot of effort. 

In 2009 I was 99 days in Germany or other German speaking neighbors and studied every day. I went through the whole German pro Rosetta Stone thoroughly and got out on the streets and tried to use it and even though I can't remember anything now, I think if I worked that hard another ten times I'd be able to barely get by. But I got very little of the work done I'd intended to do there.

So, even though I bought a little basic book on it, I made a decision not to study Tamil, at least not now, because I have other work to do. It's really not a problem here anyway because there's a lot of English spoken in India and also there are a lot of languages. Some people I'm around speak Malay something, the language of Kerala. I've also been around xxx in Pune. Maybe even some Telugu. There were Telugu movies on the flight here from Dubai - and the others mentioned and French and English and German. There's more English used here than Hindi. The lower caste poorer people who don't work with tourists don't tend to know much English at all but one can get by. I do know how to say "thank you" in Tamil - nandri - but that's not even necessary because everyone knows "thank you." I'm reminded of a Steve Martin line, said with a mix of amazement and irritation about France. Something like: "You wouldn't believe it - they have a different word here for everything!" Anyway, one can get by.

Right now I'm way in the sticks - somewhere in the bottom middle of Tamil Nadu at Gita and Shuket's (pronounced showkut) ashram, their country place. The word "ashram" is used rather loosely here to mean not only a temple where one can stay and practice, but a place where one can stay. I'm not sure what the confines of the word are. They're off visiting an Israeli friend who broke her leg and left Shuket's copasetic brother, Nowshad (maybe a cousin - they say brother for more than what we call brother) and we've been enjoying ourselves. We walked with Savitri, a local woman who helps out here, through a field to the road to take a bus to the nearest village which had traffic and cows and was busy but which is small by Indian standards. I've seen no foreigners for days and heard no English. I love it. I really feel like I'm on the other side of the world.

But enough of all that. I want to tell about something of which I was reminded by a phrase in Loring's note which started off the essay of 3-06-11 - A Typical Early Morning in Tiru, namely: already the sun was heating up the dusty path to the mountain. That brings to mind a little walk we took the other day.

We was Katrinka, Gita, Gita's friend Peter who knows Mary Cunov and is living in Sonoma County where Katrinka and I live, a Russian guy, and me. Remember the walk around Tiruvannamalai's holy mountain as reported in 2-18-11 - Circumambulating Mt. Arunachala? Well, that was the outer path - doing the whole thing on paved roads. One can also go on an inner path around the mountain which was said to be a mere 12 kilometers rather than 14. Oh good, a nice short walk in the woods.

And that's what we did - take the dusty trail up the mountain as the day warmed up. We met at six in the back of the Ramana Ashram and went out the back gate onto a stone and dirt path that quickly took us into environs that were like walking in the more arid wilderness around Tassajara. There was the red trail and the yellow one which was a shortcut over the west side of the mountain which we took to return to the red. We passed a rustic ecology center and an inviting lake where some boys were swimming.

There's a reforestation project going on and we could see trees planted recently in various stages of growth. Katrinka and Peter stopped frequently to take photos, him with a camera and her with a phone. The Russian went ahead. Gita caught up with us - she hadn't intended to come but Arunachala called her. Thanks goodness for that.

These were the best marked trails I've ever been on. Every ten feet a painted stone would reassure us that we were going the right way - first the red shafted arrows and then the yellow ones and then the red again. The north side was more forested and, once we'd descended, more level. We'd lost our Russian friend but were in cell phone contact and knew he'd gone way ahead. At one point we could see the five peaks of the mountain. The others went barefoot for most of that part. Going east along the north side of the mountain I asked and it was confirmed that we were about half way - and we'd been on the walk for as long as it took me to go around the whole thing at night with the crowds on the outer circuit. It was hot but it was really good to be out in nature just nature. We persevered. Somewhere over on the east side the trail left the pristine trashless wilderness of the park and returned us to some narrow back streets, ushering us in through a mini dump we tiptoed through.

Here Gita was essential for there were no indications of the way anymore and residents' directions of which streets to take were necessary. We came to an old weathered and empty temple with giant figures of Hindu deities, like twenty of them fifteen feet tall, their faded painted, water streaked bodies seated in two rows. It reminded me of being in an old carnival site used by prior generations. But who knows, maybe there'd be fifty thousand people there for some puja the next day. Walking on we watched monkeys playing around and some goats grazing. We reentered narrow streets lined with homes and encountered barking dogs whose threats didn't frighten us.

Katrinka commented on how similar third world dogs are, generally mid size and often brown, no pedigree I know of. The dogs here are almost all so unaggresive, the most benign third world dogs I've encountered. One theory is that the dogs here are not hostile because they don't eat meat. I haven't seen any meat since I came here and by here I mean South India. It could be because the people are so genial.

I've really noticed a difference here between North and South India. I don't know if it's because of the eight years between trips, chance factors, because I've changed, or what, but I'm not experiencing the agitation and difficulty I did before. I enjoyed the North but it was just more of an ordeal. My cardiologist who's from 11,000 feet in northern Kashmir, told me I'd like it here. He said the people here are sincere. He's right. And they're not warlike at all. Last fight they had was against the East India Company in 1840 and that was invaders. I'm told this is the heart of old India, that this is one of the oldest literate cultures in the world, that these are the people who gave us the concept of reincarnation. Before his Carnatic music concert in Chennai over a month ago, Anantha, the mridangam player said to Clay that he was going to hear verses sung that are at least three thousand years old, some thing maybe eight.

Back to the walk. Gita had been on her cell phone and she got some unrefridgerated yogurt in a clear plastic bag at a little store and said we were going to have lunch with a friend of hers on the mountain. What? We're going up there rather than continue around to the finish line? Horrors. Though often here in the tropical heat I feel like I don't have enough energy to stand up, I'm pretty good at keeping going once I get going. But we'd been at it in the heat for six hours and I think I was beginning to trudge because Gita suggested that I could take a rickshaw back if I wanted and then Peter suggested the same and I said I could see for myself that there are rickshaws and can take one if I want and chastised them for not encouraging me and they were understanding and forgiving for as Katrinka put it, I was obviously quite tired. We all were. And then we started walking up very steep stone steps I bet for a thousand of them and just when I was sure there was no end to it and we were in some Twilight Zone rerun, we stopped at a little temple or ashram and sat in front panting. Water was brought us in a large stainless steel cup and Gita said it was good and we drank and panted more. Kids surrounded Katrinka and before she knew it they had their hands in her pockets which she did not appreciate. We went inside a small room and sat on the cement floor. A friendly priest came in with an orange skirt and passed out straw mats just like Japanese goza mats, maybe that's what they were and he told us to sleep and we did.

When we awoke he brought in stainless steel plates and put rice and I guess what's called Sambhar and yogurt on it and Gita started mixing it around with her hand and squeezing it all together and Katrinka was given a spoon and Peter and I ate with our fingers, him much more skillfully because he's been here so many times for so many years - he studied years ago with the same guru as Gita and Shuket. I can't mix it all together and squeeze it and keep playing with it like Indians do though, not yet. It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to adapt to in traveling. Sometimes I can't look at people doing that - and everyone eats this way. Later when we had tea there was no spoon for the sugar because Katrinka was using the one spoon in the place.

After lunch and tea we went to another room and went through photos albums with the priest. It was all very friendly and loose. He had no stink of holiness - I don't see that here but my sampling is still small.

Time to go. Bowing palms together or right hand on heart we say farewell to the priest and to others outside we talked with a bit before walking back up up up stone steps to get to Skanda Ashram, the first of two built over the front of caves where Ramana Maharshi sat for years. We sat in each of them too and we walked on looking down on the extensive walls and gopurams (like Mayan pyramids) of Arunachala Temple city of Tiruvannamalai below where the following day we'd spend half a day there with Gita and the family of an architect friend admiring the seemingly endless sculptures of all sorts of beings and gods and animals and going into the inner sanctums (thanks to being with them).

Then down down down stone steps - what a lot of stone work and having done stone steps I can appreciate the zillion man hours it took to do all this steps, steps and retaining walls, many done because Ramana was there but this mountain has been considered holy and special for I think as long as there's been history. Lots of holy people and royalty associated with it.

We ran into the Russian back at the ashram. He'd walked back the last part through streets, not having Gita as a guide, but he'd been up to Skanda Ashram with Peter the day before so he didn't miss anything but the rest stop and lunch. The whole walk took nine hours. I figured we'd averaged .8 miles an hour. When we got back to our apartment Gita asked me what my favorite part of the trip was and I answered without hesitation, coming back into Ramana Ashram. This mountain's gonna wear me out I thought and remembered a quote sent by Andrew Main in Santa Fe:

"O Arunachala, you root out the ego of those who meditate on you at heart." - Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi